Books

From Soil to Stomach, and the contents therein… Updated August 2022.

While working at the farm, I’ve listened to a handful of books that link up well together and wanted to share here.


Hands down, the best book on growing under cover I’ve read, “The winter harvest” comes from the man who pioneered, small, intensive agriculture in America with great historical context of how growers around Paris in the 19th century created one of the most productive, intensive, urban agriculture systems in the world. Incredibly detailed with everything you need to have on your radar from techniques to philosophy. It’s a fantastic, concise, well written book.

“The Winter Harvest” –Coleman
https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/the-winter-harvest-handbook/


Natural Ecosystems have multiple feedback loops and in most cases, are self-supporting. Figuring out how to incorporate farming into a natural system, instead of against it, can result in productive agricultural systems where a great deal of the work is taken care of for us by the natural system. “Teaming with Microbes” reminds us that a vast portion of that ecosystem, with billions of organisms per teaspoon we can’t even see, are there to aid the gardener by closing the loop and finding balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ critters, from the microscopic to insects and by extension in my practical experience, all the way up to the interaction between voles and snakes/bobcats. If you don’t have enough voles, you won’t have predators around to control them for you. The same thing is true on the microscopic level. Everything has a place, and finding our place in nature is critical for a balanced, productive, sustainable, farm.

“Teaming with Microbes” –Lowenfels/Lewis
https://www.workman.com/products/teaming-with-microbes


The most salient image from “One Size Fits None” is that of dead cattle on the side of the road after a cattle truck highway accident which no wild animals would eat, as they came from feedlots… Just down the road, the grass fed animals who die on the range are reduced to bones by scavengers in under two weeks.

“One Size Fits None” –Anderson
https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496205056/


“The Hidden Half of Nature” takes us into the soil and into our guts and ties together/reveals many of the political wranglings that have contributed to the massively broken and unhealthy food system in the USA, as well as a fantastic review of the science and scientists who discovered microbes. This really got my science nerd side going.

“The Hidden Half of Nature” –Montgomery/Bikle
https://wwnorton.com/books/The-Hidden-Half-of-Nature/


Nicole Masters, with her fantastic New Zealand Accent, takes us on her own personal journey to health after pesticide poisoning as a child (which took a decade to diagnose) but primarily talks about soil, and the remarkable neglect of the life that it can sustain. She lays out, as plane as day, that biocides (any chemical intended to destroy life, I. E. pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and even/especially chemical fertilizers) do just that–destroy life, perpetuating a dependent, downward spiral of costly chemical inputs that deplete the natural landscape and farmer’s bank accounts. Why exactly would we choose this path when we now have the science to prove, which she expertly explains in no-nonsense language, that farms and ranches are healthier and more productive when we work with nature instead of against it? A fantastic read (I listened to it twice!). UPDATE 2022. Since this addition to my book list, I’ve had the privilidge to call Nicole my mentor and friend after being accepted into, and graduating from her first CREATE training course. See integrity-soils.com for more on her programs.

“For the Love of Soil” –Masters
https://www.integritysoils.co.nz/product/for-the-love-of-soil/


Though I read this next book at least a year ago now, it’s ease of reading (well listening as I used an audio book version while hoeing at the farm) and scientific referenced examples still sticks with me. A book to eliminate the ‘germophobe’ in you.

“I Contain Multitudes:The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” –Young
https://edyong.me/i-contain-multitudes


Though not quite as much of a delight to listen to as Nicole Master’s book above, Gabe Brown’s determination, practical approach, and no-nonsense revelatory process as he discovered, then transitioned from ‘conventional’ to regenerative agriculture is nothing short of inspirational. Gabe’s documentation of the operational processes on his farm, including the hardships and the blessings, is something every farmer can appreciate and learn from, regardless of your context.

“Dirt to Soil, One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture” –Brown
https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/dirt-to-soil/


Discovery of inter-species plant support systems took a long time to get on the radar, and it took a female perspective to get it through our heads–inspite of a great deal of mysognystic resistance, but Simard made it happen. This book, a journey into the masculine world of dominance and control in the forest industry in Canada, and one womans recognition of a new perspective is a breath of fresh air.

“Finding the Mother Tree” –Simard
https://suzannesimard.com/finding-the-mother-tree-book/


Kimmerer brings together new perspectives, reflection on language, breaking down the scientific, reductionist paradigm, and acknowledgement of how a colonial mindset has left us with a legacy of degrations rife with opportunities for regeneration–both personally and in the material world. This book is a ‘must read’.

“Braiding Sweetgrass” –Kimmerer
https://milkweed.org/book/braiding-sweetgrass


Dr. Anika Molesworth had done a pretty incredible job laying out the cold hard facts facing humanity as we face the devastating consequences of climate change and how that directly impacts farmers as well as society. Thankfully, she also presents a wide range of both realistic and imaginative ways we can come together to mitigate the consequences of our abuse of fossil fuels, now and in the future. She reads the book herself if you chose the audiobook, and her generous, positive spirit shines through. I find myself ever grateful for this book and am looking forward to listening to it again.

“Our Sunburnt Country” — Dr. Anika Molesworth
https://www.anikamolesworth.com/film.html


Didi Pershouse has written a delightful book, integrating life, health, healthcare, agriculture, and environmental stewardship into one intriguing, incredibly well referenced, page turning work of non-fiction. Getting to know Didi personally as an educator and coach of the 2021 class of Nicole Master’s CREATE course by Integrity Soils was a highlight of the program. Always insightful, and willing to do the hard work to get to the root of social challenges to affect transformative change–I’m ever grateful for her guidance and commitment to ecological and societal improvement on both a personal and global level.

“The Ecology of Care” –Didi Pershouse
https://www.didipershouse.com/the-ecology-of-care.html


If you thought you knew just how dangerous glyphosate (Roundup) is…think again. Not only has the chemical industry done a great job with propaganda, their mega profits have allowed a lobbying effort that has been incredibly effective at creating legislation preventing local communities from limiting their own pesticide exposure, as well as publishing junk science that creates doubt about the toxicity of their products. After watching a slick, monsanto produced video at a future farmers of america breakfast years ago, even I was half convinced that it’s not only ok, but maybe a good idea to pour poison into the well…New research, however, produced by true researchers, not industry shills, shows glyphosate as a root cause of so many debilitating diseases, exponentially increasing in the global North, that its fair to ask what ailments of modern society aren’t caused or exacerbated by exposure to this herbicide. Thankfully, Dr. Stephanie Seneff has done a remarkable job of breaking down the very complex interactions, now understood in molecular detail, between glyphosate and biological systems. She maes a convincing case for the global ban of this herbicide, and a shift to regenerative agriculture. The introduction and first two chapters are worth the price of the book alone.

“Toxic Legacy, how the weedkiller glyphosate is destroying our health and the environment”
–Dr. Stephanie Seneff
https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/toxic-legacy/


And finally, a non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, fact based book on nutrition that ties into the related themes mentioned in all three books above regarding the detrimental consequences of politics and greed on our food system and how we can make choices to combat that systems negative grip on our health. Dr Greger’s sometimes over-enthusiastic delivery of his own work in audio format leaves no doubt in my mind that we can radically improve our health through our own food choices (spoiler alert: eat plants–brightly colored and spicy ones–fresh, organic , whole, un-refined plants, lots of them!).

“How Not to Die” –Greger 
https://nutritionfacts.org/book/

Encourage the NC Cooperative Extension

The NC Cooperative Extension, a valuable resource for NC Farmers is seeking feedback.

You can let them know what you think with their survey here (until April 30, 2020):
https://survey.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0vQFovkAIbuXf5c

Of particular interest for me was the questions about their programs. Here’s what I had to say:

It’s not that you don’t have the programs.  It’s that the information in those programs are frequently based on research performed in the1950’s and ’60’s!

Restricting agents to only disseminate information from peer-reviewed research (frequently funded from dubious sources) is tying the hands of a critical resource–your agents.  This is a common issue nationwide.  While peer-reviewed research has it’s place, so to does the promotion of on-farm experimentation and exploration.  Sparking the imagination of farmers is far more productive and important than defining restrictive “Practices” for them to follow which may not work within their unique context.

NC has an opportunity to be a leader in supporting effective, non-toxic, regenerative farming practices. The “Peer Reviewed” research doesn’t necessarily exist in this field because in some instances, it is too young to have had the studies performed and peer reviewed.  Yet there are countless professional organizations with decades of research showing better yield, healthier produce, lower cost, and less dependence on fluctuating fertilizer and energy markets.  Rodale Institute, ACRES USA, Understanding Ag, the Savory Institute, the Xerces Society, and countless more all have extensive experience, research, and data spanning decades.  Incorporate this wealth of knowledge into your extension programs and stop tying the hands of your agents.

Now is the time for the NC State extension to eliminate ridiculous restrictions that require your intelligent agents to continue to recommend practices they know to degrade land, profit, health, and efficient use of resources.  

Business as usual isn’t working.  

Proscribing “Practices” has limited impact. Instead, of teach the observation of outcomes and adjusting your practices based on those outcomes. This is a much more effective management strategy if we are to make our farms resilient in these desperate and challenging times, created in large part by poor farm practices promoted by university extensions around the globe over the last 100 years.

Get ahead of this.  Be a leader.  Change the face of agriculture in NC as an example for the rest of the USA and the world to follow.  We can have the healthiest, most diverse, productive, and profitable farms in the country if managed properly.  

Don’t neglect to include farmland protection in your programs.  There are many people who will do this voluntarily if the resources they need to accomplish it are at their fingertips and they feel the support of the farming community behind them.  Without farms, we will be without food, regardless of how rich the stock brokers think they are. When the ‘bottom line’ becomes the health of our communities, we will all have much more to celebrate and be all the richer for it.

Why All the Pushback on Regenerative Agriculture?

As I’ve delved deeper into soil science and wholistic, regenerative agriculture, I’ve been surprised by the amount of resistance to the practice, and skepticism of the results put up by those in the environmental community, and the land grant university systems doing much of the formal ag research.

This week, I’ve come across two examples of academics criticizing globally admired regenerative agriculture-based farms (Brown’s Ranch, and White Oak Pastures) and neither had any evidence to back up their claims other than that they could find no peer-reviewed science to show what these operations were claiming could be done…yet they are doing it, and doing it well (both farms have built soil carbon, increased wildlife diversity, reduced inputs–in short, they have implemented regenerative systems that work with nature, rather than against it and are rewarded by lower input costs and higher quality products).

Andrew McGuire’s post from back in 2018 is one example. He’s an educator at one of my alma maters. From his bio (https://pnw-winderosion.wsu.edu/personnel/andrew-m-mcguire/) you’d think he’d be a proponent of regenerative agriculture and interested in reproducing Gabe’s results, instead his article titled:
“Regenerative Agriculture: Solid Principles Extraordinary Claims.” (https://csanr.wsu.edu/regen-ag-solid-principles-extraordinary-claims/) appears to criticize the observed outcomes at Brown’s Ranch simply because he doesn’t see how they could be true. He attempts to justify his criticism with back of the envelope calculations based on antiquated, reductionist, and ultimately inaccurate assumptions, but doesn’t do a convincing job.

Thankfully there are now three years worth of insightful comments to help Andrew realize some of his blind spots. I hope he takes them to heart and focuses on supporting good outcomes, rather than tearing them down.

Here’s my response:

Gabe,

I’m so glad you took the time to comment on this article. There’s so much close minded, reductionist thinking in the world. Regenerative Agriculture has the power to turn around the slow motion train wreck of climate crisis we’re on right now. I’ve got a fancy master’s degree in Biochemistry myself (from WSU no less), and it took me years to break free of the arrogant, reductionist mindset that keeps us from seeing that there are forces at play in nature that we don’t yet fully comprehend–and that’s ok.

Just because the mechanism producing a factual, observed outcome isn’t understood, doesn’t mean it can’t work–which seems to be the crux of your argument Andrew. Either you believe Gabe’s results or you don’t. Your job as a scientist is prove your hypothesis with real data, not simply criticize based on assumptions and speculation–that’s just not helpful to anyone. If we all sat around waiting for peer reviewed science to catch up to the already realized benefits of reduced inputs, carbon sequestration, water filtering/conservation, reduced/eliminated ‘-cides’, increased biodiversity/wildlife that regenerative agriculture provides, it would simply be too late.

Ray, your observations above (that natural systems are dynamic, complex, and change from moment to moment, region to region) are spot on. We can’t investigate dynamic, living, ecosystems by looking at single component observed out of context and expect to gain understanding of the whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be delighted when peer reviewed science catches up to modern regenerative agricultural practices, but there’s actually no need for a complete understanding of the mechanisms at play, as long as they are working and the outcomes can be accurately measured and reproduced.

Much of the universe from the human perspectives operates in a ‘black box’; we see the result, but we don’t know how it happened (here’s your link to quantum theory Andrew). Why can’t we accept that for Agriculture as well? Institutional science, funded by ‘big ag’ and the chemical companies that create dependence on their products which destroy the natural soil ecosystems that support agriculture production, fund a lot of this peer reviewed science. Want to get funded?… Ask the questions in your research that Big Ag wants you to answer.

I just can’t say it any better than you have Gabe so I’ll close by quoting you from above:

“Regenerative agriculture, unlike the current production model which you two expound, requires the power of observation and critical thinking. Andrew, you think things are meaningless unless they are peer reviewed. That is total nonsense! Most of the “research” coming out of our institutions today is meaningless to producers. It has led us into the industrial ag. mindset that is responsible for the demise of our natural resources and has played a major role in the decline of human health.”

Our planet is on fire. This is an emergency. We’ve got to work together using systems that produce results without degrading our environment, not attack one another because we don’t understand how those systems work.

Compost

There are literally thousands of ‘how to’ compost videos on youtube, and every other farm blog seems to have it’s own take on what you can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do… I find a lot of the ‘rules’ a bit of a storm in a teacup, so here’s our take.

Adding biochar to the pile before it’s final turn.

If you want to get high tech with it, knock your self out, check out the links below. If you can’t be bothered other than to dump kitchen scraps in a corner of your yard, that’s ok too (though you’ll be much happier if you put a few handfuls of leaves on top each time you take out your kitchen scraps). Either way you’re keeping organic matter out of the land fill and creating a biologically rich amendment for your garden or farm. As Nicole Masters says, ‘the elixir of life comes out of a worm’s butt’ so if you see worms in your pile, you’re doing something right.

The Johnson-Su Bioreactor

The best research we’ve found about developing fugal dominant compost so far has come out of Dr. David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chun Su who developed the ‘Johnson-Su Bioreactor’:
https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/bioreactor/index.shtml

This passively aerated static pile involves very little work once setup and produces a great compost, almost regardless of what you put into the pile as long as you build it right, keep it moist, and add some worms after the thermophilic stage. Since discovering this method, we’re converting our larger, turned piles at the farm into static aerated piles to reduce fossil fuel use and tractor time, while producing a more fungal dominant compost, using a setup similar to what can be seen in this video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxSDhnvUUc

Charles Dowding also has a great setup for his operation in England:
https://charlesdowding.co.uk/advice-on-making-compost/

The bottom line is, everyone that produces an organic ‘waste’ stream ought to turn it into a resource by putting it in a compost pile. More and more, the important role of fungi in biological systems is being recognized so building your compost piles to encourage their development will serve you well. Different crops thrive with different fungal/bacterial ratios, here’s one deep dive, see what else you can find specific to your context on scholar.google.com:

“The molecular characteristics of compost affect plant growth,
arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, and soil microbial
community composition”

https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s00374-015-1046-8.pdf

For a visual of how we build our compost piles, both at the farm, and at home (two radically different methods) check out these videos:

Small Farm Scale Hot Compost:

Agroecology. Full Stop!

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans sustainable lived off the land. With the transition to fossil fuel, and later the repurposing of toxic chemicals developed during the ‘great wars’ for use on the farm, humanity departed from its natural, give-and-take relationship with nature. We, the developed ‘Western’ nations of the world, now use food aid as an economic weapon against the undeveloped world to insure a source of cheap food and labor. (See “Stuffed and Starved,” –Patel).

Mycelium colonizing biochar at the PCE.Farm

The most efficient farms are small, run by a handful of people, scattered across the landscape but relatively close to urban centers utilizing primarily human power to plant/harvest/cultivate their crops. Well managed, they use far fewer resources to produce healthier food in greater quantities per square foot than the chemical and fossil fuel dependent “Conventional” mega farms that lie far from population centers.

A return to agroecology, agriculture with an ecological basis, on small farms near the towns and cities that demand the produce, can promote food sovereignty, reduce harmful climate impacting emissions, and even sequester vast amounts of carbon back into the soil (How is carbon stored in the soil Video from soilfoodweb.com). Why wouldn’t we move in this direction?

Raj Patel make this argument well in his latest article in Scientific American titled “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger.” And I might add, an essential tool in our humanities collective work to mitigate the climate crisis–one that anyone with a yard can practice.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/agroecology-is-the-solution-to-world-hunger/

Multiple Pesticides, Synergistic Impact

A new meta-analysis shows that combinations of pesticides have a significantly higher mortality on bees than when used individually, resulting in an underestimated impact to bees by pesticide makers and regulators.

A swarm from the PCEFarm apiary in May 2021

Take home quote:
“In 2019 scientists concluded that nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in decline and a third could disappear altogether by century’s end. One in six species of bees have gone regionally extinct somewhere in the world. The main drivers of pollinator extinction are thought to be habitat loss and pesticide use.”

Summary article:
https://www.sciencealert.com/huge-metastudy-says-pesticide-threat-to-bees-likely-underestimated

Link to original article in Nature:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03787-7